September 19, 2009

MOVIES: You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007/US 2009)

There is a city, the grayest and bleakest place you have ever seen. Its citizens and their lives seem to be just as bleak as the city in which they live. There is a constant sense of longing for the unknown, of people failing to connect with another, of frustration and futility and hopelessness.

And by the way, this is a comedy.

In a series of some 50 vignettes, Andersson shows us moments from various people's lives. The scenes and the characters are only occasionally connected to one another, though there are a few people who pop up throughout the movie -- a young woman who has a dream about marrying her favorite singer; a middle-aged alcoholic who screams at her boyfriend to go away, then sings a song about wanting to escape on a motorcycle.

It's an unsettling movie. There's no plot to grab hold of, and no character who's around long enough to become a protagonist or rooting interest. There's not much visual excitement, either; Andersson's scenes start and end in one place, almost always without any camera movement at all.

The strange thing is that for all the frustration and thwarted longing, the movie is funny, even if you can never quite put your finger on why you're laughing. It's not the humor of punchlines or of slapstick. Even stranger, there is often a sense of -- well, not joy, exactly, but resilience and the refusal to abandon hope, even when hopelessness seems only logical. I was often reminded of Beckett's "I can't go on; I'll go on."

That resilience ultimately wins out here. Andersson's characters, at their happiest, insist on finding some occasion for joy, no matter how small it may be or how pointless it may seem. Often, that joy is found in music. A man stands alone in his apartment, turns on a tinny tape recorder, and pounds away on his bass drum; there are frequent appearances by a marching band and a small Dixieland group (which share a tuba player); the final half-hour of the movie is dominated by a stately waltz that we first hear being sung at a funeral.

And if we insist on looking for those small bits of joy even in the face of despair, Andersson tells us, then, yes, we can find beauty. We see that three-man Dixieland band -- tuba, banjo, trumpet -- practicing in an empty rehearsal studio as a vicious, noisy thunderstorm rages outside. It's louder than a storm has any right to be, but they keep playing their joyous music. It's a gesture of defiance, and they're rewarded for it; no one else enters the room, but their sound is suddenly joined by a glorious clarinet, weaving its sweet, sad melody into their music. It's a small moment of magic in a world that desperately needs some.

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